Vanishing innocence | Epidemic of missing children

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Vanishing innocence | Epidemic of missing children

Sunday, 17 September 2023 | Biswajeet Banerjee

Vanishing innocence | Epidemic of missing children

In India, the crisis of missing children is dire. Between 2018 and mid-2023, a staggering 2,75,125 children disappeared, averaging six children per hour. Alarmingly, 62,237 were boys, and 2,12,825 were girls. Out of these, only 240,502 have been found, leaving 34,623 children still missing. Dr Sangeeta Sharma reveals that many are abducted for ransom or sold into exploitation. This crisis is part of a global child trafficking epidemic, valued at $150 billion. Children are sold for adoption at prices ranging from $20,000 to $25,000, writes Biswajeet Banerjee

The room is enveloped in darkness, with only the feeble glow of a dimly lit bulb piercing through. Within the modest abode of Kajal and Pramod, an air of profound despair hangs heavily. The calendar on the wall cruelly taunts them, marking the passage of time slipping through their grasp. It has been more than eight agonising months since their precious six-year-old son, Sidhartha, disappeared into the abyss of uncertainty. Each day weighs heavily on their hearts, as they cling to hope for a reunion that feels increasingly distant.

“On December 24, 2022, my six-year-old son, Sidhartha, expressed a desire to play a game on my mobile. Lacking sufficient balance, he ventured to a nearby shop to recharge it. He never returned. It has been over eight months since he vanished, and the police have been unable to trace him,” Kajal confides, her voice quivering with a blend of anguish and frustration. Tears well up in her eyes as she recounts the final moment she laid eyes on her cherished son.

Kajal clings tightly to a poster of her missing son, Sidhartha, the same image she has plastered all over the historic district of Lucknow. She implores, “Please, help me find my son.” Her hands are folded in silent supplication, and then she succumbs to the weight of her sorrow, her spirit crushed by the burden.

At the age of 23, Kajal, along with her husband Pramod, promptly reported the incident to the police. They initiated a frantic search for their beloved child. Their neighbourhood soon became adorned with posters featuring Sidhartha’s innocent visage, and they knocked on every door, seeking assistance. The police, too, launched an extensive operation to locate the missing child, but as days turned into months, hope began to wane.

“We are leaving no stone unturned to find the child. Special teams have been assembled to delve into the case, and we are utilising every resource at our disposal to trace the kidnappers,” affirmed Sanjiv Chaudhry, the dedicated investigating police officer, his resolve reflected in his gaze.

“The boy seems to have vanished into thin air... there is no trace. No one has caught sight of him,” Chaudhry lamented, the palpable sense of helplessness evident both in his words and his countenance.

The heart-wrenching saga of Kajal and Pramod is, regrettably, not an isolated incident. Throughout India, innumerable parents grapple with the torment of their missing children, their lives forever haunted by the cruel hand of fate that tore their families asunder.

In Ghaziabad, another couple, Aliya and Zeeshan, had eagerly looked forward to celebrating their son’s first birthday. But their joy was short-lived when their 11-month-old son, Rehan, disappeared from their home on March 18, 2023.

Aliya’s voice trembles with pain as she recounts that fateful morning, “On one morning I was standing with my son when two persons, on a two-wheeler, grabbed his hand and snatched him from my lap. We searched everywhere, but he was nowhere to be found.” Her husband, Zeeshan, adds with a heavy heart, “We are devastated by the loss of our son. We don’t know who took him or why. We just want our son back.”

The crisis of missing children in India has reached alarming proportions, leaving a trail of broken families and shattered dreams. According to data provided by the Ministry of Women and Child Development during the Monsoon session of the Lok Sabha, an astounding 2,75,125 children went missing between January 1, 2018, and June 30, 2023. This shocking statistic translates to an unimaginable six children disappearing every hour in India.

Among the missing children, 62,237 were boys, while a staggering 2,12,825 were girls. The figures are nothing short of staggering, reflecting a crisis that continues to escalate.

What is even more distressing is that 240,502 children out of the 2,75,125 missing children have been found, leaving 34,623 children still untraceable — their whereabouts a chilling mystery.

Dr Sangeeta Sharma, a child rights activist and former member of the Child Welfare Committee, highlights the dark reality of these disappearances, stating, “Many of these children are abducted for ransom or sold into slavery or prostitution. Human trafficking has become a major issue, and children are particularly vulnerable to this heinous crime.”

The plight of missing children in India is part of a broader, global crisis of child trafficking. Neil Giles, Director of Intelligence at Stop the Traffik, an organisation based in the UK, during a workshop organised by the Journalism Centre on Global Trafficking, said that human trafficking is a $150 billion industry, with children being sold for adoption at prices ranging from $20,000 to $25,000.

In India, chilling instances of child trafficking have come to light.

In Moradabad and Varanasi, the police uncovered a sinister child trafficking racket where infants just a few months old were being sold for amounts ranging from `2 lakh to `5 lakh. These operations extended across state borders, with traffickers targeting vulnerable children from impoverished backgrounds.

Additional Commissioner of Police, Varanasi Santosh Singh said, “They targeted children from families of labourers sleeping on the roadside, slums, and impoverished areas, ensuring that the crimes remained under the radar. The value of the child was determined by their perceived attractiveness, and the traffickers often sold the children to hospitals and childless couples.”

In Moradabad, the gang was operated by a woman from Mumbai who had employed four individuals - all nurses in hospitals. Their modus operandi was to steal infants immediately after birth, selling them to affluent, childless couples in Delhi, Kolkata, and Mumbai.

“Children are vulnerable to kidnapping and trafficking. We need to take immediate action to prevent this trend. It is a grave violation of their rights, and we need to take immediate action to prevent it,” emphasises Sunitha Krishnan of Prajwala, an organisation dedicated to rescuing trafficked children.

Krishnan highlights a critical issue — the time-sensitive nature of recovering trafficked toddlers. “A quick police action is required to track the trafficking toddler, and this, unfortunately, is missing,” she laments.

The Indian Government has taken several steps to address the issue of missing children, including implementing the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, which protects children from abuse and exploitation. Despite these efforts, the problem persists, leaving countless families in agony.

“We need a comprehensive strategy to tackle this issue. We need to strengthen law enforcement agencies, increase public awareness, and provide support to families of missing children,” asserts Nandini Thakkar, an advocate for child rights and Head Legal of the Anti-trafficking Initiative of Vipla Foundation.

Dharmendra Yadav, a police officer who initiated Operation Muskan — a campaign to trace missing children —said rescuing kidnapped and trafficked children is a formidable task. It requires a team of dedicated officials armed with a strong database that includes pictures of the abducted children.

“Earlier, such kidnappings were an urban phenomenon, but now children are being stolen from villages. This is done to escape police scrutiny, and as villagers are poor, kidnappings do not attract as much attention,” he explains.

Yadav highlights how these kidnapped children often become “fuel” for the begging industry. He recalls a harrowing incident where a girl from Ghaziabad, reported missing, was rescued in Diamond Harbour in Bengal. In that raid, 14 children who had been reported missing from Katihar in Bihar were also rescued.

“These children were deployed as beggars outside temples,” Yadav said.

Tragically, there are syndicates in Bengal that deploy children as young as one as beggars. Police categorise these beggars as trafficked children, but Bablu Pal, a part of the begging syndicate, offers a different perspective.

“There are so many poor families in West Bengal’s villages who have as many as six children. As they cannot feed these children, they send them to us,” he explains. Pal claims that every dawn, parents bring their children to him, and he distributes them among the city beggars. The demand is highest for “helpless-looking” children, with babies being the most sought-after.

Pal, unapologetic about his role in this heart-wrenching trade, describes the process, “Every morning at 4 am, parents bring their children to city-based railway platforms at Sealdah, Garia, and Sonarpur Stations. Beggars crowd around these places and from here they are sent to different places. We are not bothered about police interference. A `100 or `500 note is enough to get rid of them. Besides, we are very careful.”

The scale of child begging is staggering, with estimates ranging from 5 lakh to 15 lakh child beggars across the country. The Government census results from 2011 revealed that West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh have the most beggars, with child begging being particularly prevalent in Uttar Pradesh, while West Bengal has a higher number of beggars with disabilities.

The fate of Sidhartha remains uncertain, but his parents are not giving up hope. They are determined to find their son and are appealing to everyone to help them in their search.

“We are hopeful that our son will be traced by the police. We appeal to all to help us find our son,” Pramod said, his voice carrying their unwavering determination to see their family reunited once more.

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